In the Spirit of a record …
Take one American-built 9,5-litre V8 engine, producing 1 006 kW of power, and slot it into a streamlined and ultra-light body shell. Add four standard Dunlop road tyres to the mix. Then head for the Hoedspruit Air Force Base airstrip. The result? Two new land speed records …
‘The one moment I was looking at the tar in front of the car, and the next all I could see was sky. So I backed right off from around 350 km/h,’ explains three-time South African Production Car champion Grant van Schalkwyk.
And it’s not as if Van Schalkwyk has taken up flying as a hobby, and had to abort a botched take-off attempt. Instead the animated racing driver is referring to his experiences behind the steering wheel of the Spirit of Dunlop, a purpose-built land speed record machine.
‘On my second flat-out run the radiator cap blew off, spraying coolant all over me. I couldn’t see a thing at around 425 km/h, but I kept my right foot planted against the floorboard, because I knew I probably wouldn’t have another run,’ Van Schalkwyk explains.
But Van Schalkwyk and the spectacular Spirit of Dunlop had done enough: an average of 388,53 km/h was achieved over a measured kilometre, running in both directions, with that top speed of 425 km/h reached for a brief period in that measured kilometre.
The elated Dunlop crew had broken the South African land speed record, previously held by motorsport stalwart Willie Hepburn. But that was only part of the bigger scheme of things. Dunlop Tyres SA also scored a world record: the highest speed for a normal, grooved production tyre, which previously stood at a ‘mere’ 317 km/h.
The records follow after more than a year of research and hard work. First, a car had to be sourced. Van Schalkwyk soon realised that he would need big, big horsepower to break the record, but found that to build a suitable engine locally would be too expensive.
So he turned his attentions to the United States, and specifically to the legendary speed machine builder Mike Spitzer, based in Indianapolis, to build a car from the ground up. Interestingly, the monster V8 engine was not to feature a supercharger, turbocharger or even nitrous oxide boost to make copious amounts of horsepower. Instead the Americans relied on sheer cubic capacity and some other trick work to make the required power.
Meanwhile Dunlop Tyres SA was also busy. The company sent a batch of Dunlop SP Sport 7000D tyres to Europe to be put to the ultimate speed test on a highly advanced aircraft tyre simulator. The Dunlop SP Sport passed the test with flying colours, running at speeds of more than 400 km/h over sustained periods – without a single failure.
In March this year Van Schalkwyk travelled to Indianapolis to meet the Spirit of Dunlop for the first time. Final adjustments were made, and his first drive followed on a drag strip. To say that he received a rude awaking is putting it mildly, says Van Schalkwyk now.
‘The power and the torque (1 355 Nm) were just unbelievable! Nothing can prepare you for the sound, the speed and the sheer power of this machine. When Pitzer initially said they weren’t going to use superchargers or anything like that, I was a bit sceptical whether the horses would be enough. After that first drive I realised Pitzer knew exactly what he was doing!’
The Spirit of Dunlop was then flown to SA, with the record attempt planned for the end of August at the Hoedspruit Air Force Base.
But gearing proved to be a problem, so last-minute adjustments needed to be made. This was done with hours to spare, as the Dunlop crew headed to Hoedspruit on a tight schedule.
That first explorative run followed on the 46 m wide runway, normally reserved for Cheetah fighter planes and the like. After Van Schalkwyk’s unnerving experience when the front-end of the car started lifting, adjustments were made to the aerodynamic set-up, and finally it was time for blast off.
The first run was a blinder. Recording an average speed of 395,52 km/h over the measured kilometre, the scene was set for a 400 km/h-plus second run. But that’s when the radiator cap blew off at 8 900 r/min in top gear (about 425 km/h), the engine losing power rapidly. Van Schalkwyk stuck to his guns, but could manage only 377,04 km/h this time round, the V8 engine’s head gasket blown, and no further attempts were possible.
He had done enough though, and the 388,53 km/h average speed was a new record. ‘Unbelievable, unbelievable,’ says Van Schalkwyk of his feat.
‘We almost went off the runway in the end. We started in the middle of the 46 m wide runway, and ended up about 3 m from the edge, thanks to a slight breeze that became a serious factor at the speeds we were achieving.
‘Totally awesome,’ says the enigmatic racing driver with a huge grin on his face.
And the future? This is only the start of even greater things to come, promises Van Schalkwyk. The Spirit of Dunlop, which cost about R2-million, will soon make another attempt on the SA land speed record, as the Dunlop team believes it can go even faster. There’s also talk of flying the Spirit of Dunlop to Bonneville in the United States for an attempt on a world speed record.
The Spirit of Dunlop has turned out to be a great ambassador for SA technology. The Dunlop SP Sport 7000D is designed and manufactured here, and Dunlop Tyres SA put it to the ultimate test – which it passed with flying colours.
When car builder Mike Pitzer heard the local crew were planning on using road-going tyres, he thought they were joking, even suggesting Van Schalkwyk use a set of proper racing slicks, adding Dunlop branding for the sponsor’s sake.
Now the record speaks for itself …